It can happen to the best of us. You may have diligently applied your sunscreen all day, but just happened to miss a spot. You might have forgotten to reapply after a swim (or a sweat). Or maybe you were taken in by the latest sun care fad to hit the market.
Whatever the case, you’ve been burned – and you’ve got the battle scars to prove it. So what do you do to calm your hot, blistering skin? And how can you relieve the pain and the itching? We’ve got the answers, so read on.
First things first. It’s important to understand that a thermal burn is nothing like a sunburn. When you accidentally brush your arm against the inside of a hot oven, the resulting burn is due to infrared radiation. But when your skin is exposed to the sun’s UV rays for too long, an “acute toxic reaction” is occurring.
The burn is happening at the molecular level, which means damage can be both invisible (DNA, which can lead to skin cancer) and visible (skin, which can result in peeling and blistering). Today, we’re going to talk about ways to treat the symptoms that appear on your skin.
So you’ve got a sunburn
Before you do anything else, get out of the sun. Considering most sunburns don’t appear until 4-6 hours after excessive sun exposure, we recommend heading inside if you’re still out and about when symptoms begin to appear. That’s a long time outdoors on a sunny day!
Keep in mind that if you are sunburned, you are likely dehydrated. Why? Because sunburns are infamous for drawing your body’s fluids to the surface of the skin. So be sure to replenish your fluids by drinking lots of water and sport drinks (that are high in electrolytes) as often as possible.
Hydrate your body too. Go for a cool dip in your bathtub. Because spending too much time in the water can be drying, take frequent short baths, rather than one long one. And don’t forget to apply a gentle moisturizer after patting yourself dry.
This will trap the water that is left on your skin and keep it as hydrated as possible. If you’re not in the mood to hop in and out of the tub all day, consider applying a cold compress instead. Just be sure not to apply ice directly to sunburnt skin!
If you are experiencing pain or swelling that is too much to handle, you may want to take an anti-inflammatory pain reliever, like aspirin or ibuprofen. And be sure to wear loose clothing that isn’t chafing the skin and causing more irritation. A good buffer is a mild (1%) hydrocortisone, which can provide your skin some much-needed relief from the burn and the chafe.
Products to avoid
When bathing, be sure to avoid soaps that contain harsh ingredients. In fact, we recommend avoiding soap altogether – it’s not like you’re in there to get clean! Note that when moisturizing, petroleum jelly is a complete no-no, as it can actually make the burn worse by trapping the heat. Yikes!
And when it comes to relieving your discomfort with over-the counter drugs, be sure to leave any ending in “caine” off your list, as they can further irritate a burn.
Peeling? Blistering? Here’s what not to do.
Simply put, don’t touch! As tempting as it might be to peel off loose skin or pop a blister, you aren’t speeding up the healing process – you’re likely hindering it. While peeling is a natural part of the recovery process and is typically nothing to be too alarmed about, the best thing to do is to moisturize the area and then leave it alone.
Blisters, however, are more serious. They are a sign of a second-degree sunburn, and they form for a reason: to protect your skin from infection and help you heal. If you pop them open before they are ready, you’re just asking for an infection. And so we repeat, do not touch.
When to see the doctor
If you didn’t take our advice about not popping your blisters, check for red streaks or oozing pus. These are both signs of infection, and it means it’s time to see your doctor. If your blisters are covering a large portion of your body, we recommend seeking medical treatment sooner rather than later (especially if your burn is accompanied by fever, chills or confusion). Signs of heat stroke should be dealt with immediately, by visiting your nearest ER.
We get it. You made a mistake and now you have to live with the painful consequences of being a crispy for the next several days. If you want your skin to heal as quick as can be, follow the tips above for a speedier recovery.
And be sure to slather that sunscreen on the next time you’re spending time outdoors. One burn isn’t a huge concern, but burn this into your brain: You double your risk of developing melanoma if you burn five times or more.